Service Leadership: Why Leaders must Work For Others

On how Servant-Leadership provides tangible business results

Andy Chan
Andy Chan
Jul 17 · 13 min read

In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf penned an essay and sent to 200 of his friends. Long after, he learned that companies like TDIndustries had been reordering copies from his friends. He rung up the then-CEO Jack Lowe and asked, “What have you been doing with all those copies of my essay?” Turned out that Jack Lowe has been distributing the copies to every single executive and employee in the company, with meetings in small groups to learn and understand how they can apply those insights from the essay.

Today, TDIndustries has been on Fortune’s Top 100 Best Places to Work in America for 20 years. They even had their glory years for being on the top 10.

That essay was the famed The Servant as a Leader, an essay detailing the philosophy of servant-leadership that impacted many organisations like Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, USCellular, and Synovus Financial. Many authors like Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Ken Blanchard, author of One Minute Manager, have also cited his essay and legacy as a large influence.

“No one in the past 30 years has had a more profound impact on thinking about leadership.”—Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and MIT Senior Lecturer

Servant-leadership is a literal oxymoron; the contradictory definitions clash with each other. How is there leadership in being a servant? This timeless concept is best said in Greenleaf’s own words: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Specifically, serving in the form of assistance, empowerment, and support.

In itself, the servant-leadership forces the leader to stay on-ground and put his/her peers’ priorities first. It is selfless and insanely difficult to apply, especially with cultures that home in on individualism and meritocracy, rather than circles that promote teamwork and mutual growth. I genuinely believe that servant-leadership is a form of leadership that can manifest itself within non-leadership roles as well.

The best way to understand servant-leadership is that it is extremely human. Biologically, we virtually ditch our selfish chemicals like dopamine (the chemical you get from pleasure) and focus solely on oxytocin. Oxytocin is the chemical that our bodies produce when we feel trust and safety. This stable, long-lasting chemical is a core of the servant-leadership practitioner: the team operates on trust, and your goal is to keep it up as long as it can.

As a leader, the practicality of servant-leadership may be difficult to understand. Many would rapidly discover counter-arguments to adopting such leadership in any organisation:

  • Shouldn’t the manager (i.e. whoever’s the leader of the team) place the business results first?
  • Why should the leader work for the team and not the other way around?
  • Will service-leadership sacrifice business results? What business results can it actually create?
  • Do we need to put in a lot of resources into service-leadership? Can our current managers and executives handle this attitudinal shift?

Let’s face it: not many people are willing to put others before themselves, especially ‘leaders’ with obsolete beliefs on autocratic management. Further down this funnel, not many people who can put others before themselves, are actually being genuine with it. At the bottom of the funnel, you find empathetic, understanding leaders whose sole purpose is to build the team and provide opportunities for success. To them, the team’s growth is their growth. Their success hinges on the team’s health.

Between the bottom and the top of the funnel, there are infinite shades of servant-leadership styles and compositions, created by the infinite number of personalities and attitudes of human beings.

The reality is that not many leaders are able to practise an inherently selfless leadership style consistently in the workplace. Combined with the infinite permutations of external environments and factors that affects a person’s attitude, sometimes it may prove to be insanely difficult to even contend change.

The Senior-Middle Management Divide Hindrance

While empathetic leadership is definitely a boon to the employees, the significance of it is greatly diminished when leaders are not able to communicate how effective it will be in improving business results (or to deliver new insights on the business). I genuinely believe that leaders have a duty to excel in internal communication.

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review Analytic Services Report, it outlined the senior-middle management divide and how it is one of the biggest barriers to improving engagement—specifically, there was a clear divide on perceptions of “employee engagement between executive management and middle-management respondents”. The conclusion was that senior managers are far more likely to be optimistic (i.e. ‘rose-colored glasses’) as they spend less time on the ground, hence their inaccurate perceptions.

A friend of mine (let’s call him “Wayne”) was a manager at a startup based in Singapore. A consistent and empathetic leader, servant-leadership is nothing new to him as he had been practising it throughout his management career.

Months into the job, the company successfully got the tender from a government agency. It was a six-digits project; messing it up in any way would cause huge, irreversible ramifications for the startup – that’s inherent of any government project. Wayne, rather than sucking up all the important roles, delegated some of them to two of his team members who he felt had untapped potential.

Undeniably, the two team members felt extremely appreciated. Combined with their innate drive, Wayne only had to provide them the opportunity to work on greater things to fulfill his servant-leadership philosophy. However, this philosophy is not widely appreciated in the startup; the co-founders were focused on results (which is correct in this sense) and vehemently rejected the proposal for a few good reasons.

One, they were inexperienced. Not in their field, and not in their industry, but in their experience in working on government projects. Two, the project was significant: it was a step towards raising the next fund or hundreds of steps back from even gaining any trust from the VC they’ve been vying for. Three, Wayne failed in communicating the rationale behind his decision in the language of the co-founders.

Just like branding and marketing, messaging is extremely important. I have a firm belief that we spend the most part of lives trying to convince someone to do something for us, be it to buy our product or to help us in our work. Wayne failed to convince his bosses that he was doing something that would ultimately give business results, or at least come to a compromise (e.g. limit the involvement of the inexperienced employees, but still allow them to participate in realising the project).

Hence the reason why internal communication is highly important, especially if the leader is situated in a corporate or a company that is pockmarked with less empathetic management styles. As a leader, your role is to not just display your capabilities as a leader, but as a manager that cares deeply about the organisation’s performance and business goals.

Hidden Costs Mess Up Companies

With anything, there always hidden costs that we are unable to discover in our blind spots. There are many reasons as to why hidden costs always remain in a company (i.e. no company can be 100% capital-efficient), but I genuinely believe that the key reason would be our defocus from focusing on our duties and responsibilities, especially with senior leaders, CXOs and founders. Your role as a leader is to ensure that your actions are effectively communicated, in their language, so as to aid them in understanding through their own unique perspectives. How is your leadership going to change anything in the business at all?

Hidden Cost 1: Employee Engagement

According to The Engagement Institute, disengaged employees cost companies worldwide up to $550B annually—that’s a problem worth of half of Apple in 2018 or at least 15 Airbnbs.

Employee engagement is a term that many HR professionals aim to drive in their companies. With a plethora of employee engagement software designed to ease their jobs, the opportunity to improve this metric is undeniably huge today. Much like branding, driving employee engagement is playing long. Many executives who are highly concerned with driving short-term ROI may not see the immediate benefits of putting resources and changing leadership methodologies for it, especially when servant-leadership focuses on employees more than the business at it’s extreme.

Employee engagement is nothing fancy: in its core, it is all about having employees feel that they are being well-managed in the company. Employees need to feel needed and engaged: it is a human desire.

Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of employee engagement and well-being did a study in 2012 that remains extremely relevant today, focusing on employee engagement and its correlation to nine performance outcomes such as absenteeism, productivity, and profitability. Having high employee engagement drives profitability by 22% and a 65% reduction in turnover within low-turnover organisations.

The power of employee engagement even eclipses workplace incentives. “You feel a part of something significant, so you’re more likely to want to be a part of a solution, to be part of a bigger tribe,” said Harter.

“You feel a part of something significant, so you’re more likely to want to be a part of a solution, to be part of a bigger tribe,” said Harter.

As a leader, when you practice servant-leadership, you place your employees first before anything else, be it their growth opportunities or their feedback on the company. It is your role to communicate the company’s missions and goals to them as clearly as possible, driving purpose into their tasks and making them feel that they are part of a big picture—which is why companies always have a vision statement.

Traditional leadership usually involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at “the top”. On the other hand, servant-leadership focuses primarily on the communities to which the people belong. Power is shared and the needs of others are put first. Servant-leaders are leaders who aim to help people develop and perform as highly as possible.

When employees recognise that they are being placed first and that they are cared for, servant-leadership will effectively create a ‘tribe’. They feel that they belong in that team. Chandra Sekhar Patro, Ph.D., MBA, and Asst. Professor at GVPCE, linked how high levels of engagement at work can drive organisation outcomes like employee performance higher productivity.

Simple: if they feel like they belong, they will feel safe. If they feel safe, they will work for you, and work harder. If you keep that going, then business results will always exponentially grow.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash—this should be what your employee should feel when they come to work!

Hidden Cost 2: Employee Retention and Hiring

Hiring is exciting. Yet, it can be super expensive: hiring is a costly business—enough to be as big as Apple in 2018 (i.e. a $1T problem). Voluntary turnover is what causing the highly competitive and tight labor market to add to the list of hidden costs in a business. If we focus solely on the money, the cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary. Or it could range from $1K to $5K. Or $4K, according to Bersin by Deloitte. Bottom line, employee retention is important, and it saves costs that never register directly on the spreadsheet.

Here’s the thing, I genuinely believe that losing one employee—especially the best ones—can cripple a team in many irreversible effects. It means losing reliable winners, constant innovators, and effective problem solvers. It means losing customer relationships that have been built for a long time. It means breaking down team morale.

The staggering thing is that the Millennial and Gen Z are a general job-hopping generation that isn’t unafraid of not having the wherewithal to quit their job and finding the next. According to the Addison Group, more than 80% of workers are either actively looking for a new job or are open to one, and that is a study conducted on people born on 1993 and earlier. With the traits of millennials and the generation after, the turnover rate is about to go even higher for the next decade. The staggering thing is, according to Gallup, only 22% of millennials are engaged in their workplace.

Let’s not forget, Deloitte once said in 2016 that 66% of Millennials expect to leave their organisation by 2020.

Employees know when their leaders are poor, pure and simple. Awful leadership can be one of the key driving factors to turning an employee away from the organisation. When the employees understand that they aren’t being well-managed, disengagement occurs. When employers see the disengagement without understanding the root of it, disenfranchisement occurs—and now you have an employee that will eventually leave.

With servant-leadership, the needs of the employees are placed first. Placing their needs instead of your own management goals is the key to retaining your employees: where else can they find such a leader? Is there another environment that promotes such a culture elsewhere?

Servant-Leadership is more than just being employee-first, it is about empathy. When your employees clearly feel being cared for and paid attention to, you are telling your best workers that you understand their importance in the organisation and that you need them.

Through the infinite shades of a human's personality, people will form their own conclusion on what kind of leader you are—however, no one is a stranger to care and concern.

The Practical Guide

Greenleaf described servant-leadership as nonformulaic. It is a culmination of developing capabilities, habits, attitudes, and values. However, in its core, servant-leadership is a form of empathetic leadership.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Got a marketing project that needs more hands? Work with them as if you’re an entry-level executive. A servant leader understands that no job is beneath their paygrade. You are not above grunt work—if you do feel that way, your employees can sense it from day 1. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. When your employees see that their leader is working side by side with them as equals, their sense of belonging is strengthened, especially if you are working with them to solve problems or challenges.

When you are willing to have unpaid overtime to fix a machine that broke down with your engineer or balance the accounts with your finance guy, that’s true servant-leadership. It is leadership by example in its finest form, and it is through such leadership that motivates the employees to work harder for you.

When you get your hands dirty, you’re practising a lot of humility. You don’t wear your title to show who’s in charge or to show that you’re better than everyone else. You’re there for them. You understand that without your team, there would be no position for you. You’re appreciative of that.

Your People are Human: Invest in Them

Invest does not mean money: it means time. When you spend time with your employees, you are letting them know that you care. This does not mean after-work drinks or lunch, it can mean anything from speaking over coffee at the pantry or simply calling them up for a 1-to-1 meeting.

Humans operate best as a group, and when we have a group that is strong and well-bonded, our potential is virtually limitless. When you invest your time in your employee and show genuine interest in their desires, needs and in them as a human being, you show that you care. Regardless of whether you forge a friendship or not, spending time to forge a connection greatly impacts them. When employees feel connected to their leader, they feel safe at their workplace and therefore become more comfortable. That allows them to be more productive and enhance the quality of their work.

Get creative with the way you care: be it throwing small parties or celebrating small wins, as a servant-leader, your role is to make them feel that they belong, no matter how short their tenure is. Treat every employee as if they are permanently staying and show zero bias.

The main thing about care is consistency. It is better to show zero care over the course of a year than to show care on odd week Fridays. Don’t underestimate the power of showing gratitude; a simple 'thank you' or 'great job' every day is enough to keep your team going at the harshest of times.

The most productive employee may not be appreciated, but the most appreciated employee will be productive.

Simply put, when your team knows that their efforts are well-appreciated and noticed by their leader, they are more likely to work for you and give you their best.

It is All About Them

Skip Prichard, CEO of OCLC, said that a servant-leader only things about “you” and never “me”.

“Servant leaders think “you” not “me”.”— Skip Prichard

Thinking about yourself and your own benefits immediately disqualifies as a servant-leader. A servant-leader is selfless, and you care about your employees’ growth. Their growth is equivalent to your own, and you are willing to pave the way for them to grow regardless of whether you will directly benefit from it or not.

Got a project that your employees aren’t experienced in? Show them the ropes. Let your employees grow through new experiences, be it courses, programmes or projects. Show them that their contribution is worth its weight. Give credit where it is due. If you believe that they can shine better somewhere else, it is your role as a leader to make sure they can reach there.

Servant-leadership is a timeless concept. In ancient times, servant-leaders already existed, be it in war or in peacetime. The workplace of today is getting more complex, with the current generation of workers being born when the internet existed. With a wealth of information on their hands and the ability to obtain an infinite amount at any time through a small device, employees are more aware of what opportunities lie out there. They are able to benchmark much easier and much more accurately. Hence, the fight to retain employees has resulted in a plethora of new workplace benefits and office features: from wellness to gym memberships, from bars to foosball tables.

However, the fact is that leaders need to adapt to the current generation. Many fall for the trap of simply asking the millennials and gen Z what they want, therefore not retaining the authority of a leader. It is a balance between management and leadership that allows the team and organisation to grow. Business results can only be delivered when proper management is weaved into leadership naturally. While it may be important to be a servant-leader, your role as a manager is to ensure that ultimately, you deliver business results in the long game.

This article was first published on the Human+Business, a publication aimed at leading conversations about how we can be more human in our businesses, management and leadership in today’s context.

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The Human Business

The leading destination in Empathetic Leadership in the 21st Century—business in the 21st Century needs to be more human and we look at how people can navigate the ever complex space to deliver real results and real impact.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

Writer, Management Thinker and Marketer | Former Startup Co-Founder

The Human Business

The leading destination in Empathetic Leadership in the 21st Century—business in the 21st Century needs to be more human and we look at how people can navigate the ever complex space to deliver real results and real impact.

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